Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Keep hope alive

i had one of the worst sleeps in history, yet i'm perfectly content. every 20 minutes or so i woke myself up asking, "is it true? is it really true?" happily, over and over i could put myself back to sleep with a comforting yes: yes, Barack Obama has been elected president of the united states.

i've been caught off guard by how much this election means to me, what it means, symbolically, for the US to elect a black president -- but also an urban president, a liberal, a cosmopolitan. the footage from kenya last night was meaningful not only because it was east africa, which always stirs me, but because for the first time in living memory, maybe the first time in history, the white house has lived connections to another part of the world. it makes it that much more difficult for america to recede into an isolationist exceptionalism.

and then there's the fact that he's african american. like everybody, i've known this all year. when i taught the james baldwin story "sonny's blues" to my first-year students earlier this semester, we ran through the history of slavery, the invention of the cotton gin, the urbanization of african americans in the north, the harlem renaissance, and the nascent civil rights movement. we watched billie holiday sing "strange fruit" (yeah: it's on youtube), and i ended the discussion by saying, "and that's why it's a big deal that there's an african american running for president."

in spite of all this consciousness, there was something, i don't know, different and shocking and inescapable and wonderful about seeing barack and michelle obama with their daughters on stage in grant park chicago last night, knowing that all four of them -- the whole family -- will be moving to the white house this winter. throughout the campaign, something, i suspect it's tokenism, though it's also the fact of cosmopolitanism and the fact of liberalism and the fact of complexity, something made it possible, perhaps even necessary, to see past the fact of barack's blackness (to invoke fanon). but the whole damn family is black, and they're all part of the big show now, all four of 'em, and it's michelle who's going to be walking the razorline of smart, stylish, self-possessed and supportive, and there will be black girls (black girls!) playing in the back yard of 1600 pennsylvania. obama's election is a Big Deal.

so i'm happy today. i'm happy for my former student, linda, who teaches in small-town arkansas. she writes, "There are just no words... I think there were scenes across the South and the nation akin to that which Maya Angelou describes when Joe Louis won the title of Heavyweight Champion of the world. ... I can't wait to get to school this morning. I can't wait to see Dr. Mallory, my colleague who taught in segregated schools and was a student at SAU when blacks were not allowed anywhere on campus outside the classroom. I can't wait to see my black students."

i'm happy for my friends al and sue in seattle, sue in particular being a lifelong democrat.

i'm happy for jesse jackson, whose "keep hope alive!" speech i was fortunate enough to hear in california in the fall of 1988. that's 20 years ago now, and 20 years after MLK's murder -- though at the time the '60s felt ancient, while the '80s feel like yesterday to me now. there is a world of learning there.

i'm happy for deidre and hector, their son eric and the baby they'll have in february. they're new yorkers, and maybe new yorkers don't have to feel so freakishly out of kilter with the country they're a part of, the country they were repatriated into after 9/11. i'm happy for new york.

i'm happy for all three of marcia and leerom's kids, who will grow up with barack obama as their president, and i'm happy for marcia, who protested nuclear arms at the original ground zero in nevada in the 70s and 80s, and i'm happy for lee and the progressive synagogue the family's part of.

i'm relieved and happy and relieved and -- did i say relieved? -- for the whole world this morning.

there's no one to feel unhappy for. during mccain's concession speech, which i agree was very gracious, i realized that in a profound sense he never had much to lose during this election. he's old, he's white, he's conservative, he's male -- the world remains his oyster. he can live the rest of his life off the "i ran against barack obama" stories if he wants to.

right now, though i hasten to add that i'm high on hope and sleeplessness, i don't even feel terribly unhappy about the queers who can't marry. there is work to be done, no doubt, and not least with conservative african americans who, if polls can be believed, voted overwhelmingly in favor of the bans on gay marriage.

but this morning hope is tangible, and i want to remember that "hope" is for us too. not just americans, not just african americans, not just democrats or centrists, but all of us who live for progressive change. there is plenty to despair about in the world, especially over the last 7 years, and there's always room for better. facebook status updates are being qualified already, from last night's jubilation to a more measured tone that notes the disappointments of prop 8.

i get it. but as for me, i'm not going to change my update yet. hope is an unknown territory, and i'm going to take the risk of living there a while.

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